A secondary dominant chord has chromatic notes in it - it's non-diatonic. As in key C, E7 can be called a secondary dominant chord. BUT to be a dominant, or secondary dominant, does it HAVE to lead to the chord it's actually dominant to? Bearing in mind that, I guess, G is always called 'dominant', even though it may not lead straight to the tonic, which is what it often does. Often, but not always.

That E7 will often, if not generally, be followed by A or Am, thus making it the dominant of that A chord. Thus, secondary dominant would appear to be a logical name for it in those cicumstances.

But, if it was followed by, say, an F chord, as sometimes happens, would it still be labelled secondary dominant, as it actually doesn't fulfil that role in the music.

If so, why? And if not, what name would it be given?

  • I had the same idea when I read the question about C- am -B -C the other day. And I thought the progression could be in e-minor leading to a false cadence (V-vi) - like Richard says. Sometimes I'd wish to sit together with you at the same table, Tim ;) Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 16:56
  • Related questions about secondary function in the general: music.stackexchange.com/questions/78281/… Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 17:01

5 Answers 5


No, it doesn't have to lead to the chord it's actually dominant to. (Keep in mind that "dominant" doesn't really mean "leads to tonic," it just means "built a fifth above tonic.")

Occasionally these secondary dominants will resolve deceptively, like in your E7–F example. Really, this is V7–VI within a small pocket of A minor that takes place in a more global context of C major.

Here's an example I used in a course recently; it's the overture to Wagner's Tannhäuser:

enter image description here

This is in E major (and it modulates, or at least tonicizes, B). In m. 12, we have a D♯7 chord (V7/iii). It doesn't resolve to G♯, but rather it resolves deceptively, creating a V7–VI motion in the key of G♯ minor. Furthermore, the C♯-minor chord at the end of m. 11 is a iv6 in G♯. As such, I understand this as what we call an extended tonicization in the key of G♯. Instead of just a V–i tonicization, we include multiple chords here: in a local section of iii (G♯), we have the progression iv6–V7–VI.

In other instances, you can have what some call a "back-relating dominant," where the dominant actually appears after its respective tonic. In C major, you might have C–Am–E7 before moving on to something else. But still this can be understood as vi moving to V7/vi.

But in still other cases, an E-major chord in the context of C might just be a more advanced chromatic coloration, and it might be best understood as a III♯ chord. It's really all about context.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. Are you saying, then, that any chord, particularly dom.7ths, can be called secondary dominants, as in key C, Ab7 is a secondary dominant, whether it goes to Db or anywhere else? Or does the sec. dom. have to have its root diatonically in the key at the time? If so, any old chord could be deemed to be a sec. dom!
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 13:07
  • @Tim That's a interesting distinction to make. Again, it depends on context. Often, textbooks say that secondary dominants are understood as being dominants of a chord diatonic in the given key. But really that's just a clarification for early on; as music gets more complex, we have secondary dominants of the Neapolitan, etc. Again, I think it all depends on context! If there's a reason to think of it as a secondary dominant, then we can do so.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 13:12

I had always thought that a secondary dominant was by definition the V chord, however this does not seem to be explicitly mentioned in any definitions I can find:

"Secondary Dominant is any chord that has dominant function in any other chord that not the tonic in the song." (SimplifyingTheory)

"A secondary dominant is an altered chord having a dominant or leading tone relationship to a chord in the key other than the tonic." (Secondary Dominants, Dr Barbara Murphy)

"a secondary dominant chord is, by definition, any dominant chord that is not diatonic to the key." (MusicTheoryOnline)

"A Secondary Dominant is a Dominant 7th chord that is the dominant of a diatonic chord other than the tonic." (tutsplus)

None of these definitions state exactly the same thing, so I will address them separately.

SimplifyingTheory.com stated that the secondary dominant must have dominant function, which their site defines as "Transmits instability and tension feeling. Promotes the idea of preparation for the tonic". Well, the iv7-bVII7-I "backdoor" cadence also transmits instability and tension while preparing for the tonic so it seems reasonable to say that this definition allows secondary dominants that don't have a dominant relationship to the in-key pivot chord.

In the paper by Dr Murphy, she gives us two options. The first is a dominant relationship while the second is a leading tone (bVII7) relationship - such as the backdoor cadence.

MusicTheoryOnline and tutsplus both state explicitly that the secondary dominant must have a dominant relationship to the pivot chord, which contradicts the former two definitions.

Having considered these four definitions, I am lead to believe that the secondary dominant needs to have a resolution to the pivot chord and the common use of V/V has lead to people thinking that a dominant relationship is the only one that can be used.

  • So, 50:50 from this. What's a backdoor cadence?
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 10:37
  • I think it could be argued both ways, although personally I prefer the less strict definition
    – Aric
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 10:44
  • #1 covers the others. #2 and #4 basically say the same thing. I think #1 is the clearest, although it could use some wordsmithing, and it is the short form of @Richard's answer. Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 16:01
  • @Tim Just realised I missed your question about the backdoor cadence. There's a link in my answer to the wikipedia article about them. The backdoor cadence can be considered the counterpart to the II-V-I perfect cadence, where instead of resolving down a fifth to the tonic it moves up a tone. I would recommend watching this video, since I am not particularly skilled in composition or music theory, so my knowledge is limited.
    – Aric
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 17:31
  • bVII7 does not have a leading tone (with its b7 scale degree chord root), and iv7 does not have a "dominant relationship" as typically understood by "secondary dominant" to bVII. The definitions you are quoting are mostly assuming a V/x, V7/x, viio/x or viio7/x relationship between a chord and its (likely) resolution. The "dominant relationship" requires a major triad or major-minor seventh chord, and the "leading tone relationship" requires a half-step up resolution in chord roots.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 20:28

It's important that we recognise the 'string of dominants' function of a sequence of chords rooted F♯, B, E, A, D, G, C.

Some definitions of 'secondary dominant' would exclude those that didn't precede a diatonic chord - so D would have to be Dm. Perhaps we agree this degree of strictness is obsolete?

Do we allow ANY chord in a 'cycle of 5ths' sequence to take the 'secondary dominant' label? Probably not, but in F♯m7♭5, B7, E7....C the F♯ chord has a lot of 'secondary dominant' characteristic! That's what matters, not whether it satisfies the strict requirements to be labelled a 'secondary dominant'.

Oh - and to return to the original question - yes, G7 is a dominant when it resolves to C. It's still one if it diverts to Am in an interrupted cadence. I think we can allow a secondary dominant the same indulgence. But context is all. Does a basic blues sequence contain secondary dominants? What about 'Leroy Brown' with its C, D7, E7, F, G7, C sequence? Is it always helpful to pin Common Practice labels onto later musical styles?

  • So at what point does any chord become/stop being a secondary dominant..?
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 16:02
  • When it stops acting like one. Doubtless we can find some borderline cases. So, once, again, nothing definite for the Rule Book. Sorry!
    – Laurence
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 16:05
  • What are your thoughts on viewing the F♯m7♭5 as a iim7♭5 in a larger motion towards E?
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 18:40
  • If that's what happens, sure. (But a SMALLER motion than carrying on all the way to C, surely?) You can rarely describe a chord usefull by what it IS, only by what it DOES. And it might do different things even within the same song! Think of a song in C that throws in some Fm chords. Very common, no need to invent a modulation or a 'borrow', just a simple chromatic chord. But later on, that Fm leads to Bb7 to Eb. Now, it IS setting up a modulation! Same chord, two functions.
    – Laurence
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 14:18

In Jazz and also in the common practice era we have often chains of unsolved (ii-V7) progressions: This V7 are all secondary dominants!

e.g. Bachs

Prelude in C#: s. measure 33-46

enter image description here

or Prelude in D measure 4-25:

enter image description here

N.B. These examples above are resolving: not in a new tonic, but in the next ii-V7 progression.


As is typical in music theory, one often has to use labels and terms for chords for two different purposes: (1) to describe the actual collection of pitches present in a chord, and (2) to describe the "function" of the chord (usually where it resolves, how it fits into the local scale and local progressions, etc.).

From the first perspective, a secondary dominant can sometimes refer to any chord that one could slap a Roman numeral label of V/V or V7/vi or whatever on. In C major, those example chords would have the notes D-F#-A and E-G#-B-D respectively. Naively, one could just place such labels on all such collections of pitches, without regard to where the chords come from or go.

But Roman numerals and terms like "secondary dominant" are not only about labeling a collection of pitches. They also tend to assume something about a chord's function. Most analysts will try to use "secondary dominant" in an application where it makes sense, i.e., a context where it "does what dominant chords do."

And dominant chords can do a lot of things. They most frequently resolve to tonic. But they can also occasionally do other things, like deceptive cadence progressions (V-vi or V-VI in minor). Richard's answer shows an example of a secondary dominant doing that. It still makes sense to call the chord a "secondary dominant," as it's doing something that normal dominant chords frequently do within their own key. Even less frequently, dominant chords resolve other places, like IV6 (particularly if the dominant chord is inverted). And, as Richard notes, sometimes the secondary dominant relates mostly backwards to a "secondary tonic" that comes before it, but then the resolution of the secondary dominant is non-standard.

Basically, as long as a secondary dominant chord is doing something reasonably like what a "dominant chord" would do within the secondary key, it makes sense to call it and label it a secondary dominant. But what if it doesn't? What if the E-G#-B-D chord above didn't resolve normally at all in the secondary key of A minor, but instead resolved with the outer tones moving outward to Eb-Ab-C-Eb, and then further that chord moved to Eb-G-Bb-Eb. Well, then the E-G#-B-D isn't a secondary dominant in A minor at all, but rather a weirdly spelled augmented sixth chord in A-flat major, and from a functional standpoint, you should call the E-G#-B-D chord that instead.

In some cases, you might even have a dual-function chord. If in the previous example, there was an A minor chord right before the E7, which then modulated to A-flat major, the E7 chord could be a "secondary dominant" that relates backwards to the A minor and sounds right within that local key. But going forward, it's a pivot chord that begins to function as an augmented-sixth chord in its resolution.

And if the E-G#-B-D chord appears out of the blue in a C major piece and then does something even weirder that doesn't tend to happen normally in any key (e.g., say it resolves to a D-flat major chord), then it might not make much sense to put any tonal label on it. The term "secondary dominant" implies at least some sense of tonal function when using the word "dominant." If the chord just skips to a random other chord, you just have a weird chain of chords that can't be explained using normal tonal syntax or terminology.

  • Your last paragraph is really where my question emanated from. If a chord isn't functioning as a dominant of some kind, should it still be labelled secondary dominant? Then what does it get labelled?
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 7:49
  • @Tim: From my perspective, a Roman numeral should represent a tonal function. If the chord has is not functioning in a way that makes any sense within standard tonality, it doesn't seem appropriate to give it a Roman numeral label (to me). In that case, if forced to label it, I might just note that it's an E7 chord (or whatever). For example, some sonorities are what I'd call "voice-leading chords" that don't really function but are merely a product of various passing tones, neighbor tones, etc. and temporarily seem to come together to create an "E7". I might not call that a "chord" at all.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:18
  • Yes, that's really what I'm trying to establish. in key C, say, when there's an E followed by an A of some sort, then yes, to me that's a secondary dominant. But followed by anything else, it ceases to have that mantle - to me. But some still call it sec. dom., as it 'could' be. but surely it isn't..?
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:21
  • @Tim - Well, as I noted in my answer, dominant chords do other things other than resolve to tonic. Most analysts, I believe, would still use the term "sec. dom." and the appropriate Roman numeral (V/vi) as long as the chord behaves in some way like a dominant chord might. Ex. If you are in C major, a G chord that moves to A minor would still be called a "dominant chord" even though it's resolving V-vi in a deceptive cadence-like motion. So why can't an E7-F progression be thought of as "V7-VI" in A minor, in which case the E7 is acting as V/vi? (The F here is thus both IV and locally VI/vi.)
    – Athanasius
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:45
  • @Tim - To be more clear, the set of contexts where a sec. dom. would occur is relatively small, because dominant chords do usually go to tonic. There are only three typical scenarios I'd use the term. Taking your E7 in C example, those would be: (1) if the E7 resolves to some A chord, (2) if the E7 resolves to F (or in a weird situation F#m) in a deceptive cadence (V-VI) motion, (3) if the chord resolves elsewhere but is preceded clearly by an A minor chord or some other context that establishes A as a local tonic. Otherwise, it may have some other function, but probably not a sec. dom.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:57

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